HomeBuildingsThree ways Covid-19 has spurred asset tracking and the march on massive IoT

Three ways Covid-19 has spurred asset tracking and the march on massive IoT

Note, this article is taken from a new report on the asset tracking sector, called Asset Tracking – and the March Towards Massive IoT. The report can be downloaded here.

It is not just about the march of technology – that trackers are getting smaller and cheaper, and more clever in even their low-level functionality. Outside aspects have coalesced around sensor-based tracking, as well. The most significant of these, arguably, is the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, of course, which has obliged society to track social distancing to get back to work. 

Covid-19 has made assets of people, in tech terms, and subjects of tracking; it has provided the asset tracking market with an inadvertent fillip, even as whole industrial sectors have gone into lockdown for most of 2020. “We are seeing brand new use cases – the government tracing apps, but also because schools and businesses want to track proximity as well,” comments Michael Ammann, global head of industrial application marketing at IoT module maker u-blox. 

1 | TRACKING IN THE SUPPLY CHAIN

The impact of Covid-19 on asset tracking has been three-fold, at least. Firstly, it has highlighted inefficiencies in interconnected global supply chains as markets have shut down independently of each other. Intermittently, this has forced crucial links out of the chain altogether, and a best-effort shuffling of the rest to cover the gaps. 

“The market is hotting up, and a big part of that is the fallout from Covid-19, accelerating the trend towards digitising the supply chain,” comments Tancred Taylor at ABI Research. “People have realised just how much insecurity is in the supply chain – a lack of visibility and your supply chains quickly sprawl all over the place. You need to somehow bring them together, and under control.” 

The point is asset tracking technologies provide visibility, and foster dynamism. Tracking deals have been signed specifically around Covid-19 shipments. Arguably the most high-profile of these involves FedEx, which has introduced a BLE tracking system in time for shipping of Covid-19 vaccines, as well as for other emergency pharmaceuticals and medical supplies. 

Robert Carter, executive vice president and chief information officer at FedEx, remarks: “Package tracking and visibility are more important now than ever, as businesses have become increasingly reliant on timely deliveries. [This solution] was designed to give customers the precise level of tracking…  to optimise their supply chains and make any necessary adjustments during the journey of their shipments.”

French firm Sigfox, perhaps pushing the ‘massive’ IoT story hardest, chasing monstrous volumes with minuscule margins, claims it signed with one unnamed European government to deploy 21,000 trackers, in order to follow 200 million face masks – “from factories in Asia, onto container ships, and into various ports in Europe.”

A little sheepishly, perhaps, Ajay Rane, vice president for global business development at Sigfox, reflects: “Without saying anything good about Covid-19, it has been something of a blessing-in-disguise, the way things have turned out. We have uncovered many more opportunities we didn’t know we had, with some of the largest corporations in the world, and most of it is around asset tracking.”

2 | TRACKING IN THE WORKPLACE

The second major impact of Covid-19, as above, has been around space (and people) management, particularly in the workplace – in offices, factories, shops, schools, and universities. In general, and as Rane suggests, the sense in tech circles is that, even as longtime industrial IoT customers have locked-down and dropped-off, business has picked up elsewhere – and the sector’s buoyancy will be reasserted, and even raised, in the medium term. 

The workplace is the heartland for Austin-based HID Global, which specialises in biometric security credentials and access control. The pandemic has seen the firm accelerate its offering beyond passive RFID tags – well deployed in passports and green cards, and in access control in real-estate and retail – to drive new indoor zoning and tracing applications. 

These new applications use active RFID tags and beacons, and are mostly based on BLE. “With Covid-19, the number of enquiries coming in to us around people tracking in buildings has increased by 200 – almost 300 – percent. And that’s across all vertical markets,” comments Taylor Breihan, global business development manager at the firm. It’s not just Covid-19, he notes; it is the way of things, when emergencies and disasters are so rife. 

He adds: “The situation is heightened in the US, where there are a lot of emergency events – shootings, fires, any kind of natural disaster. In those scenarios, knowing who is in a building, and where they are is a powerful thing.” 

The term, increasingly familiar in civilian circles, is ‘mustering’; HID is offering a hybrid RFID solution with a passive ID badge to give access to buildings, together with an active beacon for “tons of metadata” about what goes on inside. “Mustering has been a very focused workflow,” says Breihan. “The things facility managers need to cover are visitor management, primarily, and mustering. Right now, with Covid-19, those are the top two, plus room utilisation.” 

But the applications quickly multiply, he says, as with any first-look at IoT infrastructure. Anecdotally, he tells a story about a manufacturing client approaching HID about a mustering solution for 2,000 staff. 

“The firm has four buildings on a large campus, and never knows where anyone is. They were ready to spend hundreds of thousands on big mustering towers, networked and wired, out in the parking lot. But we talked about our solution, and they realised they could track visitors, as well – instead of signing in the visitors book and handing out badges. And they said, ‘Hey, can we do time and attendance for contractors, as well?’ 

“Because they were badging-in and then vanishing – for a couple of hours, or on smoke breaks every 30 minutes. And of course they could. And the next step, of course, was Covid-19, [and a solution] to know who gets sick, and when, and who they are in touch with. So it turned into contact tracing, as well. Once you start, it quickly snowballs.”

3 | TRACKING IN HEALTHCARE

The third impact of Covid-19 on IoT has been with conventional asset tracking; the difference, after the pandemic broke, was where the interest was coming from: the healthcare sector, itself, as well as in sundry work, retail, and hospitality venues for proximity tracing. But conversations in healthcare have spiked around tracking of physical assets. 

It has been a trend, anyway, says Breihan, as Wi-Fi has been found-out as a tool for real-time positioning. He has another couple of anecdotes, with more unnamed customers; with hospitals in New Jersey and New York. The first was losing $50,000 each quarter from stolen medical equipment, he says. “They knew what they were losing, but they didn’t know when or how they were losing it. Because they couldn’t track their assets.” 

The answer was to put BLE beacons on the equipment; the $200,000 annual saving quickly paid for the installation. Meanwhile, hospital beds were going walkabout in New York, misplaced in corners and corridors. 

“They were just being left. But what’s the value in tracking a bed? It turns out it was taking staff up to an hour to track them down – and often it was left to nurses, on $20 per hour or more, to look for them. It was adding up: five hours per month, multiplied across 10 buildings. And with Covid-19, pumps and ventilators are in demand, of course.” 

The thing with healthcare is its relationship with technology is entrenched, already, and complex. Breihan reckons 80 percent of Wi-Fi-based indoor positioning, offering a real-time location service (RTLS), is with healthcare. This is because Wi-Fi is so widely deployed, he reasons. But Wi-Fi beacons, for triangulating between all these access points, are expensive ($100-$120, compared with $25-$30 for BLE, apparently). 

They are also power hungry, and liable to misfire. “Wi-Fi struggles to determine even what floor a beacon is on. The density of access points is not high enough, even in hospitals,” he says. For indoor tracking, all roads appear to be optimised with BLE sensors, whether the data is hauled-out on existing Wi-Fi infrastructure, or over local-area LoRaWAN or public/private cellular gateways; everyone says so, it seems. 

“Wi-Fi is only used because it is the older technology, pushed by older multi-billion dollar companies. Now, with BLE systems at half the price, we are finding dozens of workflows that create value for clients inside and outside of healthcare. That is changing the world,” says Breihan. 

Ammann at u-blox comments: “BLE has seen significant growth, notably with Covid-19 tracing – so there are a lot of new BLE applications. The enhancements in the standard, as well, have extended the coverage range, from about 300 metres to one or even two kilometres, and introduced angle-of-arrival and things like that. Which has greatly enabled new use cases.” 

Automatic registration on BLE is another key function, enabling products to be scanned en masse on pallets. 

The release of state funds for the healthcare sector has invigorated its pursuit of more novel and efficient digital technologies. Very quickly, glancing only at the US and Europe, investment is coming from the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act and the proposed Next Generation EU recovery bill. With targeted reinforcements, these funding instruments stretch to $2.2 trillion and €1.85 trillion, respectively.

Note, this article is taken from a new report on the asset tracking sector, called Asset Tracking – and the March Towards Massive IoT. The report can be downloaded here.

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